How Much Carbon is Being Sequestered in Deep Reservoir Sediments?

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Funded on 11/08/13
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  • Funded
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About This Project

Up to 18 meters of sediment lays at the bottom of the largest watershed on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The Elwha River was first dammed in 1913 and is now in the final phases of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, leaving 100 years of sediment now exposed. This gives researchers like me a unique opportunity to assess how much carbon reservoirs like former Lake Mills and Aldwell hold, how it is distributed throughout the sediment, as well as how these large bodies influence the local and global carbon cycle. This photo album shows some of the work that has now been completed.

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What is the context of this research?

Accurate inventories of soil/sediment organic matter (SOM) are needed to assess the ecosystem services they provide in the Elwha River watershed; one of the most important watersheds in the Puget Sound, increasingly so for fish stock, including several threatened and endangered species (an overview of SOM can be seen in this NRCS publication). Understanding one of the most important features contributing to the nature and properties of soils and sediments, carbon measurement adjacent to the Elwha river will help to mitigate and assess the potential threats to aquatic life in the region (this Nature article illustrates some of the challenges fish in the Elwha face).

On a larger scale, quantifying carbon volumes in reservoirs such as this is becoming increasingly important as atmospheric carbon stocks are steadily rising. Being able to take full advantage of this unique opportunity will give researchers and policy makers the much needed data to assess risk at both the local and global scale in regards to carbon, its sequestered state, and its ultimate fate.

What is the significance of this project?

As dams all over the world are beginning to age and will need to be replaced or taken down, this research will provide key information regarding pools of carbon after reservoir sediments are exposed. It will also begin to answer the question of how much carbon is being stored in the thousands of large reservoirs worldwide.
Additionally, as these sediments begin to change into developed forest soils the carbon held within them will contribute to a number of ecosystem services including the production of food and fiber for flora and fauna of the area; water recharge, storage and purification; nutrient cycling, reduction of soil erosion and climate regulation. Forested soils contain approximately one-third of the carbon stored in Earth's terrestrial ecosystems. Consequently, these soils are vital to to the provisioning of ecosystem services.
If the stretch goal is met, research done to assess loss of carbon to the atmosphere could tell us about possible fluxes of greenhouse gases, something which could have significant implications to reservoir policy and to the current understanding of human induced carbon release and sequestration. Additionally, this study will serve as a baseline for any research done on sediment carbon in this unique setting.

What are the goals of the project?

Since the fieldwork of coring both former Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills is now complete, and lab preparations (sample categorization, drying, weighing, grinding, etc.) are slated to be finished within weeks, your funds will go directly to elemental analysis which is currently on hold due to insufficient funding. This is a pivotal step in our research and will give us the raw data from close to 100 deep cores taken over this last summer. From this data we can begin to model how carbon is distributed throughout these reservoir sediments and calculate the volume of organic carbon being held.

Budget

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My team has volunteered their time and money to sample the sediments of former Lake Mills and Aldwell, as well as prepare several hundred samples in the lab for carbon analysis during this last summer. Now we need your help to run these samples through our analytic machines so we can start to understand the impact reservoirs have on our global carbon cycle and if dam removal will have adverse effects on global carbon flux and emissions. Now that all field and lab preperations are complete all we have to do is the CHN (carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen) elemental analysis, an absolutely critical part of the project, but costs about $6/sample.

Stretch Goal:
If we exceed out $1,500 goal, we would like to set up gas chambers on both reservoirs to assess what extent offgassing of CH4 and CO2 is occurring from methanogenesis and other biologic processes. We currently have permitting through the national park service to do this and have an in-house gas chromatograph to run the samples.

Meet the Team

Seth Wing
Seth Wing
M.S. Candidate

Affiliates

2011 - BA, UCLA, Geography/Environmental Studies, GIS
2014 - MS, University of Washington, Forest and Environmental Sciences
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Team Bio

Growing up in a small mountain town, I have always been interested in the natural world around me, particularly the soil beneath my feet. During my undergraduate degree at UCLA I quickly found one of the top researchers in soil and remote sensing, eventually obtaining a position in their lab. After working there for over a year I knew I wanted to go onto graduate research and am now at the University of Washington's forest soils program within the school of environmental and forest sciences.

Collaborating with Olympic National Park, I have been fortunate enough to gain access to the largest dam removal project in North America to research a topic that I have been interested in for much of my life; researching soil/sediment carbon, a critical facet to how soil contributes to water recharge, cation exchange capacity, nutrient cycling, and much more.

Seth Wing

My research background has been in soil and sediment carbon sequestration and biomass distribution. Previously I have concentrated in arid environments of Southern Africa and the Western United States. However, being in Washington, the surrounding environment makes for a fantastic natural lab, thus allowing me to shift my interests to a more temperate setting with an incredible array of biogeochemical diversity.

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Additional Information

About the video above: Return of the River is a documentary by Josh Gussman and Jessica Plumb.


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